REDWOOD — Elizabeth M. Duvall always wanted to be a teacher, and when she became one, she became passionately devoted to improving the lives of her students and the communities they lived in.
From school classrooms to the woods of the Indian River Lakes Conservancy, and lately in front of desktop cameras for Zoom sessions, she was known for her boundless enthusiasm and vigor for teaching.
Her sister, Rachel Rose May Zysk, was succinct when asked what drove Mrs. Duvall to excel in her profession.
“I think God did,” Ms. Zysk said. “She was born a teacher. One of her friends said, ‘She took the kids with the hardest problems and she just pulled them in and loved them.’”
Mrs. Duvall died Thursday, May 28, at the age of 34 of an undetected heart defect — a mitral valve prolapse — an improper closure of the valve between the heart’s upper and lower left chambers.
There were no symptoms, no family history and the sudden death of the athletic, active woman has left the community and those who loved her reeling.
“She loved diversity, culture and kindness, and to do everything you could for the person who needed it,” said her husband, Richard A. Duvall, CEO of Carthage Area Hospital. “And it was about family: love and joy. As cliche as that may sound, that’s how she lived.”
“It’s one of those things where I think when someone is around someone like her, you don’t necessarily appreciate it as much as when she’s gone,” said LaFargeville Central School Superintendent Travis Hoover. “The idea that she was always living life with a smile and as you think back, we just don’t take time to reflect on those things very often. We get wrapped up in the negativity and all those pieces. People with such positive hearts, loving and caring people, don’t get the publicity that they absolutely deserve.”
Mrs. Duvall taught sixth grade this school year at LaFargville, but in the past eight years at the district has also taught grades 1, 2 and 3.
“She could do anything, teach at any grade level,” Mr. Hoover said. “It was never an issue. Wherever we needed her, she was willing to go and she did it with a smile.”
She left an impression on students, with former students and family members greeting her with hugs when they met.
“She was a hug person,” said her mom, Patricia Ann (Craig) Esford. “I can’t tell you how many conversations were interrupted by other parents, teachers and children who would run up to her and hug her. That’s the kind of love she gave.”
“We’d be walking around Sam’s Club, the fair, streets, wherever, and family and kids, grown adults, would come running up to her to give her a hug because she was their teacher,” Mr. Duvall said. “It wasn’t like once in a while. It happened all the time.”
She was also very active outside the classroom, helping the community.
“She was the first one to sign up to deliver meals to her students during corona,” Ms. Zysk said. “And they’d write her notes and letters and stick them on their windows. ”
Mr. Duvall recalled his wife’s charity at Thanksgiving.
“People bring food to food pantries, but we went and bought meals for families — turkey, ham, shrimp, bread, vegetables — and put them together in packages so families could eat. There’s so many things. So many things we would do just to spread the joy.”
The impression she left on people, especially students, was hard to forget.
“Students from years ago would send letters to her just out of the blue,” Mr. Duvall said. “They’re in college, and it’d be like, ‘You taught me it’s OK to be myself.’ Or, ‘You taught me how to be strong and competent.’ It’s just amazing.”
“She would have kids in the hospital and she would visit them every single week, even though she always had a million things going on,” Ms. Zysk said. “If a child’s parent had cancer, she’d be the one organizing a benefit, cleaning their house. To say she went above and beyond doesn’t even capture it. She saw a need and would fill it every time.”
Mrs. Duvall’s enthusiasm for teaching was often on display, literally.
“One of my favorite stories is when she became an elementary teacher,” Mrs. Esford said. “If the students performed well, and listened and paid attention and had good scores on tests, she would promise a surprise — a side aerial, a gymnastics move, and the kids would just love that. She would do them in the middle of the classroom and could still do them at 34!”
Ms. Zysk, who penned her sister’s obituary published Tuesday in the Times, said she had a sense of adventure, from jumping off cliffs to roadtripping across Australia.
But while on a casual walk on a trail at the Indian River Lakes Conservancy in the summer of 2017, Mrs. Duvall ran into board chairman Elliott Hillback Jr.
“She mentioned how she liked to bring her students from LaFargeville on the trail at the Redwood Hill Preserve,” said Wylie Huffman, who became IRLC’s executive director in 2018. “He grabbed her name and number. I was newly hired after retiring from the military and I was looking to form an education committee geared to create some children’s programming. She was the first person I reached out to. She was a real go-getter.’
The education committee meetings, Mr. Huffman said, were held at 5 p.m. — times when energy lagged.
“But holy cow, she’d walk into the room and everything was full of energy and fun with excitement. It just radiated from her.”
By the summer of 2018, IRLC had its first childrens’ camp, with close to 60 students from local school districts. The three-day camps are run by volunteers.
“You should have seen her out on the deck on the learning center in the morning, when kids get signed into groups,” Mr. Huffman said. “She would lead them in songs, leading a whole crowd of kids. It was so amazing to watch before they split into groups. It was a lot of energy, complete positiveness. You could hear her laughing from a mile away. She’s really going to be missed here. We’re looking to do some kind of dedication next year uin the spring to honor what she gave us.”
Elizabeth attended General Brown High School and received a bachelor’s degree in childhood education with a mathematics specialization and a master of science in education degree as a literacy specialist from SUNY Potsdam.
She married Richard on Feb. 16, 2019, in front of friends and family on a sunny winter day alongside the St. Lawrence River in Clayton. They were introduced by a mutual dear friend at The Thousand Islands Harbor Hotel, Clayton, where their wedding reception was held.
In honor of the legacy that Mrs. Duvall left behind, a foundation has been established in her name at and managed by the Northern New York Community Foundation.
“Much of her life was devoted to uplifting, encouraging and empowering children. In the midst of the extreme pain and loss, this is a meaningful way that the work she started can continue,” said Rande S. Richardson, NNY Community Foundation executive director. “It’s a humbling honor to work with her family and friends to design a legacy that best reflects the way she lived and what mattered most to her.”
Ms. Zysk said the new foundation will focus on bettering the lives of children.
“We’re committed to carrying on her legacies and to accomplish the goals she dreamed of,” she said. “The past few days, it’s the only thing that’s given us any sort of hope.”
Memorial contributions may be made in her name to the “Northern New York Community Foundation, 131 Washington St., Watertown, NY 13601 to establish the Elizabeth May Duvall Foundation.”
LaFargeville Central School is also planning some sort of recognition of the legacy Mrs. Duvall left at the district.
“We know, regardless of what’s done at the school, she was such a personality that she will never be forgotten by the people she has touched,” Mr. Hoover said.